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The Nature of Conscious Experience

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Experience and Modern Physics

Snow Buntings


References to modern physics in explanations for conscious experience have got something of a bad name, and perhaps not unreasonably. An awful lot of nonsense has been said about the relevance of early quantum theory. On the other hand, there are good reasons for thinking that the popular view of ‘ordinary physics’, based largely on late nineteenth century models, that even at the time were questionable, cannot give an account of experience. Any approach to experience that does not take account of the most up to date view of the fundamental aspects of physics must run a serious danger of being ill-informed. Post 1980 physics has transformed the way we understand simple everyday events like reflection in a mirror or the formation of snow. The tricky bit is seeing how this transformation might be relevant to neural events.

What seems to have been forgotten is that the creators of physics, such as Galileo, Descartes, Newton, Leibniz and Maxwell all appreciated that ‘billiard ball’ physics could not handle phenomenal experience (or ‘ideas’, ‘thoughts’ or ‘phantasms of colours’). Early quantum theory, by showing that at the fundamental level things are not quite the way we expect them to be, promised to give some account of how to do better than billiard balls. Unfortunately, much of the focus on quantum theory in the study of conscious experience has been on ideas related to Bohr’s concept of ‘choice of measurement’ and wider ideas of ‘free will’. The necessity for an observer in all physics got confused with ideas about the uniqueness of the dynamics of the human mind. The idea that human consciousness ‘affected’ the world in some special way by ‘collapsing a wave function’ led to the absurdities of Wigner’s early suggestions and Schrödinger’s deliberately ridiculous idea of a cat that was both dead and alive.

This idea of uniqueness of the role of the human subject in the universe is very close to Descartes’s view of the unique dynamics of the human soul. It remains embedded even in university physics textbooks. We are told that it is strange that the choice of measurement on one of two entangled particles can ‘affect’ the state of the other instantaneously, despite it being a light year distant. What is bogus here is the idea that there is something called ‘choice’ that is anything other than the dynamics of the universe unfolding according to statistical rules. It is never the case that I ‘might have measured something else’. The world of ‘might have been’ is an illusory construct. Events are not predetermined at the Big Bang but nor is there such a thing as ‘changing the course of history’ because in the world we inhabit whatever happens is the history that was ‘going to be’. We instinctively separate our dynamics from those of the rest of the world but this has no legitimacy in a comprehensive theory of physics.

Fortunately, recent physics has moved away from a focus on ‘intervention’ or ‘perturbation of a system’. Although, as Whitehead points out, the occasions of experience that we call our human experiences are likely to have a more complex level of order than many others our only hope of discovering the rules they follow is if they are based on the same principles as those of the rest of the universe. What I see as most relevant in modern physics is the appreciation that fundamental events involve very complex patterns based on fields of potentials. If anything things get more complex the more fundamental the level of analysis. If we want an event to have the complexity of a human experience we should look at something quite small at the fundamental level. It is no good looking at the level of a complex computational structure like a brain in which there are many events physically related by their sequence. An experience cannot be a sequence of events because the information-carrying fields of truly past events are not available to a present event.

Despite this complexity, modern physical theory has, perhaps paradoxically, reverted to a fully local account of interaction. Field potentials can only influence, or inform, dynamic units locally where the potentials are. To have complexity that means that the dynamic units must be extended in space and time. That is consistent with the distributed nature of dynamic units as described by the various successors to Schrodinger’s equation that form the basis of quantum field theory.

This way that complexity arises from the distributed nature of a dynamic unit has nothing to do with entanglement, which for some reason has frequently been seen as providing help in explaining the complexity of experience. Entanglement does not make things co-available. Entanglement implies correlation and correlation implies a reduced complexity of a pattern, the opposite of what we seem to want. 

If we get rid of the idea that the dynamics of the soul are very very special dynamics and look for explanations for experience in aspects of modern physics that apply to all the ordinary things around us I think we are more likely to find the right answer.